Why Doing Less Is Key to Being More Productive
If getting more done and making better use of your time are among your New Year’s resolutions, Chris Bailey is here to help. Chris spent a year of his life conducting various experiments to uncover the secrets to peak productivity.
He tried everything from working 90-hour weeks to avoiding caffeine, sleeping less and even living in isolation to avoid interruptions.
What worked best? Among other things, spending less time on important tasks and striving for imperfection. Chris highlights some of these counterintuitive findings in his new book, The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy. In the following interview, he shares some of his top recommendations.
For starters, how do you define “productivity”?
I see productivity as how much you accomplish, not how much you produce. It’s not about working faster or more frantically. It’s about working more deliberately and with more intention. The least productive people I know are those who work on autopilot in response to work that comes their way. It’s not about how busy you are but rather about the results that you achieve.
So what is the secret to being more productive and achieving better results?
It’s about managing your attention, energy and time. Productivity is the confluence of these three things. It used to be that we worked in factories doing simple work that was repetitive and didn’t take much brainpower. Today someone who focuses intently on his or her work without being constantly distracted or interrupted will get twice as much done as someone who only brings a little bit of focus to the work or is constantly distracted. The same is true for energy. When we use our brain all day, managing how much energy we have to avoid getting burned out is equally important. And it goes without saying you also need to closely guard your time.
What’s the best way to boost one’s energy?
Among the most important ways is by getting enough sleep. Sleep is a way of exchanging your time for energy, and the exchange rate is great. You should also exercise and drink less coffee.
Less coffee? Isn’t caffeine supposed to make you more alert?
Yes, but you should drink coffee strategically. In other words, use it when you need the energy, not just out of habit. Drinking coffee allows you to bring more energy to the work that’s in front of you in the short term, but you wind up paying that energy back later because anything with caffeine ultimately causes you to crash.
You’re also a big believer in meditation.
The neuroscience behind meditation is resoundingly conclusive. It shows that meditation allows us to bring more focus to what’s in front of us. I lump meditation in with brushing your teeth — it’s something one should do every day because the productivity benefits are that great. Most people think they’re too busy to take the time to meditate. I suggest getting rid of other, unproductive things to make time for it. Even 15 minutes a day can make a huge difference.
You imply that being focused is essential, but most of us have been trained to spend our days multitasking.
Multitasking is more stimulating for the brain, but study after study shows that it actually makes you less productive. Neurologically speaking, your brain can’t focus on two things at once. You wind up leaving half of your attention on the table. When you focus on a single task, you bring more focus and attention to your work. Multitasking is a tough habit to break. I challenge people to start by focusing on a single task for 20 minutes. When those 20 minutes are over, you’ll likely find that you accomplished more than you would have in an hour of multitasking.
You write in your book that the Internet is killing productivity.
One of my favorite studies shows that we spend 47% of our time on the Internet procrastinating. Just as we leave half of our attention on the table when we multitask, the same is true of the Internet. We burn half of our time doing pointless, low-return tasks such as repeatedly checking e-mail, looking at social media — you name it. The Internet can absolutely obliterate your productivity if you’re not careful. I found disconnecting from the Internet really raised my productivity level.
But people expect you to respond to their e-mails right away these days. Are you saying that’s a bad practice?
It derails your attention from work that’s more important. I recommend scheduling pockets of time over the course of the day to check your e-mail. I personally check e-mail once a day, though I have some VIPs that get flagged and looked at more frequently. E-mail is both terrible and amazing at the same time.
You have a chapter called “Working Less.” Conventional wisdom is that the longer your workday, the more productive you are.
As a rule, people work fewer hours than they think. They tend to equate the number of hours they put in at the office with how important they are. I actually alternated between working 90 and 20 hours a week as one of my experiments. What’s interesting is that I found your work expands to fit how much time you have available for it. There’s also a curious relationship between your time and your energy. Shrinking how much time you spend on something allows you to expend more energy on that task, rather than more time. You shut off the distractions around you and hunker down on the task at hand. This lets you accomplish the same amount of work in less time.
What was the biggest surprise you uncovered from all of your productivity experiments?
That waking up early to get a fresh start on the day lets one get more done. I discovered that every person has a biological prime time, or point in the day when they naturally have more energy. For me, that was between 10 am and noon and 5 pm and 8 pm. Granted, it is hard to accommodate everyone’s individual needs in a structured work environment, but if waking up early doesn’t fit your natural rhythm, it will impede your productivity.